09 January 2010

In Baptismate Domini

Nicholas Cabasilas is the author of this post on Baptism. He was a fourteenth-century Byzantine theologian and mystic born in Thessalonica. This piece is from his work, “De Vita in Christo,” which, after reading it, might convince anyone that they really do not reflect enough on the meaning of their own baptism. In this excerpt is mentioned a practice which continues to this day in Eastern Christendom, that of being bathed in the waters of baptism, followed by the anointing with chrism, and then Holy Communion, regardless of age.

We cannot lift ourselves up to God by our means, thus He came down to meet us. We were not looking for Him but He wanted us. The sheep did not seek the Shepherd, nor did the lost coin search for the Master of the house. It was He Who came to the earth and retrieved His own image. He came to where the sheep were straying and lifted them up.

God made us heavenly while yet remaining on earth and imparted to us the heavenly life without leading us up to heaven, but instead bending heaven down to us. As the prophet said: “He bowed the heavens also, and came down” (Psalm 17:10).

Through these sacred Mysteries as through windows the Sun of Justice enters this dark world. He puts to death the life which accords with this world and stirs that heavenly light so that the world can be conquered. The Light of the world overcomes this world which He affirms when He says: “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Christ introduces the abiding and immortal life into a mortal body.

When the sunlight enters a house, the lamp no longer attracts the light of onlookers, but the brightness of the sunlight overcomes it and dims it. In the same way, as in this life when the brightness of the life to come enters through the Mysteries and dwells in our souls, it overcomes the life of the flesh and the beauty of this world and conceals their brightness. This is the life which is in the Spirit, which overcomes every desire of the flesh in accordance with Paul’s words, “walk by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).

This is the way the Lord traced by coming to us, this gate He opened by entering into the world. When He returned to the Father, Jesus did not want to close it behind Him, but from Him He comes through it to sojourn among men, or rather, He is constantly present with us and, in fulfillment of those promises, is with us forever.

Thus, as the patriarch said, “this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17). Not only the angels descend to the earth by it, but even the very Lord of the angels Himself.

Accordingly, the Savior as He submitted Himself to undergo the baptism of John, opened up heaven and showed that this is the means by which we shall see the heavenly place. Indeed, the words in which He declared that he who has not been baptized will not be able to enter into life, intimates that this washing is some sort of entrance and gate.

To be baptized is to be born according to Christ and to receive our very being and nature, having previously been nothing. This we can learn from many sources. It is the first of the Mysteries into which we are initiated, and before the others this Mystery introduces Christians into the new life. Then, we may learn this from the very names we call it; and from the ceremonies which we employ and the words which we sing. This, then, is the order which we follow: First we are washed, then, when we have been anointed with chrism, we approach the sacred altar.

This is clear proof that baptism is the beginning of new life, that Christ Himself, Who endured all things for our sake, considered it necessary to be baptized and underwent this before all else. As for the names, what else could they imply? We call it birth, new birth, new creation and seal; and in addition baptism, clothing, anointing, charisma, illumination and washing. All these names signify the same reality: the beginning of being for those who are in accordance with God, and so live. Birth, then appears to signify nothing more than this.

New birth and new creation means that the baptized, who were formerly lost, have found a second birth. When a sculptor restores the shape of a statue, he refashions its image.

This is precisely the work of baptism in us; it engraves an image and imparts a form to our souls by conforming them to the death and Resurrection of the Savior. Thus, it is called a “seal” since it conforms us to the royal image of Christ and to His blessed form.

Since the form clothes the material and puts an end to its formlessness, we also call the Mystery “clothing” and “baptism”. This is what Saint Paul declares when he applies it to the terms “clothing” and “seal”. At one time he speaks of Christ being engraved and formed on Christians, at other times as being wrapped around them like a garment. He speaks of the initiate as having been clothed and plunged into water, writing to the Galatians, “my little children, with who I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you” (4:19), and “as many of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (3:27).

On the day of baptism God will recognize His own, as according to the words of Saint Paul, “having come to know God, or rather, to be known by God” (Galatians 4:9). On this day our new name is pronounced, as though then we were properly known, for to be known by God is to become truly known. And so, the psalmist said of those who have no part in this life: “I will not make mention of their names upon my lips” (Psalm 15:4).

Those who remove themselves away from this light are unknown and unseen. Apart from light nothing is visible to the eyes of those who can see, nor is known to God those who have not received light from above. The reason is this: unless it becomes apparent to Him by the light, it entirely lacks true existence. This is in accordance with Scripture which says that the Lord knows those who are His (cf. Numbers 16:5). Again of the foolish virgins He says that He knows them not (cf. Matthew 25:12).

Baptism is called a gift because it is a birth. What might a person contribute to his own birth? As in the case of physical birth we do not even contribute the desire for all the blessings derived from baptism. We wish for the things we are able to conceive in our minds, but these blessings “the heart of man has not conceived” (1 Corinthians 2:9), and no one can conceive them without experiencing them. When we think of the possibility of freedom and kingship, we think in terms of a happy life which human thoughts can grasp. But this is entirely different, greater than both our thought and our desire.

Baptism is called “anointing” because those who are initiated, it engraves Christ Who was anointed for us. It is a “seal” which imprints the Savior Himself. As the anointing is actually applied to the whole form of the body of him who is anointed, so it imprints on him the Anointed One and displays His form and is truly a sealing.

By what has been said it has been shown that the seal has the same effect as the birth, just as the clothing and the plunging effect the same as the sealing. Since the free gift, the illumination, and the washing have the same effect as the new creation and the birth, it is evident that all the nomenclature of baptism signifies one thing: the baptismal washing is our birth and the beginning of our life in Christ.